Commentary: Don’t be unferry to us

Dunleavy skips community budget meetings to address Safari Club in Reno

Dick Shellhorn participates in a rally supporting the Alaska Marine Highway System. (Feb. 11, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Cordovans showed up in numbers at the ferry terminal for a rally at noon on Feb. 11, to protest cuts into the marine highway system that have dramatically impacted our city.

It was a sunny day and, led by the marvelous efforts of Cordova Chamber of Commerce Director Cathy Renfeldt an inspiring array of signs and outpourings of support highlighted the event.

I held up a sign that read “Don’t Be Unferry to Us,” which drew praise. I didn’t have time to explain that the I didn’t deserve any credit for originality, as it was the same slogan on a sign held up by CHS students at the same spot back in 1987 over cuts to ferry service that would ruin their sports season that year.

Sound familiar? At least that year, the brain-trust down in Juneau responded and suddenly the Tustumena was back making stops in Cordova that winter.

Well, some key ears down in Capital City don’t seem to be listening this time around.

Hell, the Top Dog wasn’t even in Alaska. The statewide protests were scheduled for towns throughout Alaska, particularly those in Southeast, impacted by the cuts. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who created all this chaos by cutting $43 million from the Marine Highway budget, cancelled meetings in Wrangell and Petersburg, and flew to Reno instead. And he failed to reschedule any conversations with Alaskans.

Maybe for good reason. A day before the rally here, I had contacted longtime Valdez basketball coach Barb Lyons, who now serves as activities director at Valdez High, about the game schedule for the upcoming Valdez tournament. 

The subject of ferry cuts came up, and Lyons, a former standout at Petersburg High, said that Petersburg was “really gearing up for Dunleavy.” I don’t think that meant him riding on a float down Main Street, but perhaps instead some fully clad Vikings lurking along Sing Lee Alley.

Cordova Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathy Renfeldt addresses a rally in protest of ferry service cuts. (Feb. 11, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Dermont Cole of Fairbanks, lifelong Alaskan and colorful commentator on the state of the state, posted a photo of Big Mike with the following caption: “Despite the nonstop claptrap about @GovDunleavy promising nonstop meetings in Alaska to get budget advice, here he is in Reno with TV hunter host Jim Shockey speaking at the Safari Club International Convention.”

In case you haven’t noticed, the state of Alaska, to maintain its current budget, is looking at a $1.5-billion deficit. So far, Dunleavy’s sole proposal to balance the budget is a lottery — which would garner about $10 million. Now that’s leadership and problems solving.

The plight of smaller coastal communities losing ferry service is getting more and more publicity, yet some of it must make Cordovans shake their collective heads.

For example, did you know that right now Alaska has zero mainline ferries operating? Zero.

The Matanuska is sidelined in Juneau, after new propulsion equipment broke down. Passengers who had been allowed to camp on the car deck, awaiting repairs so they could get to Haines or Skagway, were finally kicked off.

“Terrible. We are stunned after waiting here an entire week,” said Mary Lecom, one of the passengers.

Hey, try waiting seven months, like we are here in Cordova.

DOT Commissioner John MacKinnon responded to the crisis.

“We have a 55-year old ship, and what breaks? The new stuff!” he said.

Wait? What is the ferry system doing with 55-year-old ships? Is there any question why they are all in dry-dock, constantly breaking down, with hulls so thinned by rust that patches are being welded on them?

Thirty-three years ago, Cordova high schoolers rallied against cuts to ferry service.  Sound familiar?
Miss Iceworm Ria Smyke, center, joins a march advocating for improved ferry service. (Feb. 11, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

How many 55-year old boats do you see in the Cordova boat harbor? Does it take a saltwater genius to realize that the cost of maintaining and repairing these ancient mariners is eating up the Marine Highway budget?

And then this, DOT’s solution to the problem, proposed on the same day as the statewide rallies: It is considering hiring private boats to fill in until the state’s ships are repaired.

Great. Where is that money coming from? 

If a week or two without service is a crisis that demands finding alternative vessels, why didn’t DOT consider that to solve Cordova going without service for seven months?

Again, that same sign from 33 years ago is still worth waving:

“Don’t Be Unferry To Us.”

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes.